Darcie Dennigan - “Mary and Cervantes on the mattress —/It is not a word for humor girls –/ It means death, little death.” But through “little death” comes little Jesus, who asks, “What came first, the stream or the yearning?”
Darcie Dennigan, Palace of Subatomic Bliss, Canarium Books, 2016.
This book contains a play about a woman who dies twice, a treatise on why there are no female absurdists, and several unfortunate references to goldfish. In fact, the book was almost called "The Fish" in the way that Gogol's story is called "The Nose," except that unlike the olfactory organ of the Gogol story, neither the woman nor the fish has yet developed a life of her own, and it is perhaps beyond the powers of the author to indicate whether this is a happy or sad undevelopment. Much of the text is simply unattributed lines from Pina Bausch, Virginia Woolf, Daniil Kharms, Albert Camus, Clarice Lispector, and others.
Lists, images, musical fragments, letters, charts, a play, quotes—Dennigan (Madame X) packs her dense, intelligent third collection with all manner of communication. A poem doesn't have to be a poem in this book, in which writing bites at the edges of reality both formally and thematically. For instance, Dennigan's stage directions can operate as eerie, dreamlike demands: "I was to go off to the edge of the lawn again, lightly, like a silk handkerchief." Others are more specific, as in "(move)" or "YOU CAN SKIP THIS WHOLE THING," the latter of which feels both self-conscious and knowing, a nod toward the absurdism being explored. As was notable in her previous collection, Dennigan is obsessed with the absurdity of the human body, particularly fertility and pregnancy: "So the fetus did try to come out early./ I was able to stuff her back in and help her regain fetus status, but not before she made a few requests." Dennigan's poetry resists categorization, demanding that the reader try not to reconcile the paradoxes she presents. Instead, Dennigan asks that readers accept the book's logical and emotional traps, the long mazes that conclude without relief: "Marry and you will regret it; do not marry and you will also regret it. That is how the expert's report ended." - Publishers Weekly
Darcie Dennigan, Madame X, Canarium Books, 2012.
All wide awake in a state of delirium, Darcie Dennigan's MADAME X stands at the intersection of the surreal and the historical, an ill communication of the anxieties and ecstasies of the 21st century.
In Dennigan’s poem “Matriarchy,” the mysterious Madame X makes an appearance, asking the bewildering question, “Why Have There Been No Great Male Pietàs?” Many of the poems in Dennigan’s collection are dense, lengthy monologues broken up only by breath-like ellipses and strange circumstances. In addition to themes of gender and religion, there are also questions of religion and sex. In “Catholic Reunion,” Dennigan writes, “Mary and Cervantes on the mattress —/It is not a word for humor girls –/ It means death, little death.” But through “little death” comes little Jesus, who asks, “What came first, the stream or the yearning?” In “The Half-Life,” birth brings death. A nurse at a hospice home that has survived a nuclear holocaust describes the devastation of a stillborn baby among their ranks: “Helen said How beautifully easy to break... I said... firmly... Helen it is already broken... But she... she had meant... me....” Dennigan’s quirky language and light touch work to counteract the weightiness of these themes. Her bizarre poems about dreams and her lovely poem entitled “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguists or The Error of My Maze” tangle language and clash meanings to create new understandings and misunderstandings. The poems are surprising and evocative, “to put it wildly.” - Publishers Weekly
It’s hard to make the ellipsis work in poetry. Elizabeth Bishop’s “At the Fishhouses” is a particularly successful example (though there are only two ellipses in that poem), harnessing the taut precision of the imagery to the poem’s metaphysical reverie, and the immense vastness of the “clear gray icy water” to the specific objects immersed in it (a seal) or which flank it, as scenery (the “dignified tall firs”). But this poem is an exception: spoken or written ellipses more often seem to indicate rambling or indecision: childlike locution, even.
Such were my thoughts on the ellipses in poetry before picking up Madame X, a collection of poems predominantly structured in long prose paragraphs whose incomplete clausal phrases are connected by ellipses. The initial effect was jarring— spit it out, poet!—but that perception soon shifted to formal considerations of how the ellipsis was functioning (rejection of closure in an internal monologue gone haywire?). By the time I reached the poem “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguistics, or, The Error of my Maze,” my benefit of the doubt reading was confirmed: the lexical burst that characterize this book lead the reader to a climatic ending that dramatizes one of the text’s most dazzling hooks: interpretative validity, both the dream and impossibility thereof. “I keep hoping you will interrupt me,” the speaker (eulogizing a wallflower) declares in the collection’s final poem. Perhaps this is also part of the strategy—desire for the reader’s involvement—being deployed? Either way, the thrills of Madame X are had at the cost of the speaker’s limited patience with the poem-as-spectacle: “Friends, I cannot entertain you eternally.”
A passage from an elliptical poem (“The Existentialist”):
. . . Last night I dreamt . . . maybe this is a sign too . . . I dreamt . . . a terrible swift God . . . was in my driveway . . . I kept telling him to go away . . . I kept saying Okay okay yes you’re God . . . but only because you’re in the style of one . . I don’t know why I said that . . . in the dream . . . he didn’t have a God face . . . but he had the clothes . . . (actual ellipses here denoting skipped lines) . . . And then what is . . . What . . . Who is . . . Who is riding . . . whom . . .The patron poet of Madame X (who appears only once, in “The Matriarchy”) is Sappho; the speaker isolates Sapphic “clauses” (e.g. “Garlands of celery”) to shore up the speaker’s search, articulated in “Some Antics” thus: “There is a vast unwritten clause—that I race and pound to—that I/ palpitate to—/ My belief in that vast unwritten clause brought it into being.”
This begs the question: does the speaker see her elliptical narratives (interrupted not by an other but by competing thoughts or passing observations) as being that “vast unwritten clause” or does that vast unwritten clause represent an extra-textual (as-yet-unheard) speech act or song? If the former, we learn of the beginning of this love-affair with language, as broken into “complete” syntactic units (independent clauses, or sentences) and pieces torn therefrom with the line “My first utterance was a sentence …”
The gravitas of Madame X is tempered by a slipstream of ideas, memories, literary ghosts (Cervantes, Celine), as well as the persistent figure of a baby who returns the poems again and again not to a domestic realm, but a Stevensian “reality,” (à la “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon”): “Everything is the baby, the bedroom is the end of the world,// but when the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you/ must/ hold in your arms a strange thing.”
Shapeshifting between the voices (and occupations) of a predatory bird, an aesthete, a male Pietà, a suicidal baker whose secret ingredient is flowers, a mother, and a sacristy worker with a penchant for drinking baptismal water and eating communion bread—while the desires shot through this collection include the sublime as approached corporeally—“the part of me that really responds to majesty are my hips”—these poems are also footnotes to actual life. As if incapable of not being “honest” (the poet promises us this gift throughout), the poems that reference the life of the poet spur this hyper-kinetic collection on as much as they ground it.
From “The Job Interview”:
#1 I am not an idealist!Madame X pilots the idea that the line between reality and dream is not so much collapsible as it is meant to be collapsed. The result is poems that are carefully measured yet fully embodied, necessary, yet ebullient, weighed down by material concerns yet toward the glory of the poem:
#2 I’ll work anywhere and hard . . .
#3 What I’m really good at is loving this world well.
I just don’t know who—
who I’m supposed to be or how to make enough money.
Three empty glasses and Laura finally says, Skin & bones.- Virginia Konchan http://therumpus.net/2012/06/madame-x-by-darcie-dennigan/
What? my new husband says.
I whip at him, Shush! We are starving the language.
The anatomy of truth, I say to her. Yes, yes, okay!
Darcie Dennigan’s poems are all over the place, or rather, all over the page. In just flipping through Madame X, one might be daunted by the flurry of form, the constant ebb and flow of lines from page-long blocks of text divided only by ellipses, or mid-length lines surrounded by white space. Dennigan is not using form all willy-nilly, though. It’s clear she’s taken care to select each poem’s shape and punctuation in order to further the work that the words do on their own. Page-length hallucinatory narratives become incantatory, hypnotic, always moving. End-stopped short lines, as in “We Humans” (“My boyfriend believes aliens built the pyramids. He is very smart.”) become a welcome calm among the chaos.
This is not a collection to choked down, and a reader would be doing herself a disservice to do so. Each time I read this book, I was compelled to devour it differently, grouping poems in a way I’d not previously, or starting from an entirely different place. There’s a lot going on here, and it’s no exaggeration to say that Madame X deserves both the time and attention it takes to sit and engage with these poems.
The book is divided into six sections that are not named, but rather denoted with a dividing page marked with a large black “X.” It begins with what became my favorite poem of the entire batch, “The Youngest Living Thing in L.A.” which is given its own section entirely. The poem’s speaker has an unnervingly declarative voice, a voice which makes an appearance throughout the entirety of the book. This speaker, is able to make the quotidian sound eerie, the eerie gorgeous. “City whose sky was white jet streaks. / Whose houses were apparitions of asbestos flakes. / Whose homeless sipped wind from tins.”
Dennigan’s worlds feel sometimes entirely fictional, yet wholly engaging. The are enigmatic without being obtuse. In “The Shooter” she is faced with a feast of only kiwi. In lines that trail into each other, she describes the one note smorgasbord that intellectually we know never happened, but secretly hope once did, as she repeats “kiwi” until we barely understand the word, and it sounds suddenly foreign. “In The Bakery” is especially beautiful, and follows a year of frantic baking with flowers that seems to mimic a descent into madness cut short. “I drank a vat of rosewater and put my wrists through the slicer.” Dennigan’s voice can be so matter of fact that we forget she can surprise us with a quiet, controlled line like “I love how in the cold, my breath flowers before me.” These moments are a lovely slap in the face.
I don’t always know what’s happening in these poems, but I don’t mind. Dennigan has earned permission to stun us with oddness then appease us with the straightforward. Whether the narratives are real or imagined, whether the speaker is Dennigan herself, doesn’t matter. What matters is that each poem had a way of enveloping me slowly, the way vines might grow in the night. By the end of the collection, I was rapt and bound. - Anna Claire Hodge http://southeastreview.org/review-madame-x-darcie-denniga/
“She was my mother and she was also, in the dream, a large bird.”
Darcie Dennigan’s Madame X has poems that are simultaneously swirling and staid, manic and composed. Navigating the life of the aesthete in the 21st-century, her shifting speaker shrieks with the grace of a saint but evinces honesty throughout, exploring subjects like semantics, fertility, sexuality, and childbirth. This speaker, concerned with the prospect of “starving the language” while cooking up a luxurious duck heart dinner, tries to reconcile the strangeness of the world with preconceived ideas that no longer hold true (as the dinner guests chime in, “That’s not the way it goes … anymore”). The longer prose poems attempt to jell the linguistic and tangible—often visually, with heavy ellipses—and create an exciting liminal space in which the poems flourish. It is from this fresh perspective, though, that Dennigan’s speaker also articulates a concern typical to young artists: “I just don’t know who— / who I’m supposed to be or how to make enough money.”
In this landscape, making money isn’t what matters most (even if this necessitates a reluctant resignation from a job at the local sacristy). What’s important here is the ability of language to extricate humans from their fleshy encasements, to tell “the tiniest shard of a story’s eggshell”. In “Out in the Ether,” Dennigan describes two angels enjoying “interpenetration”—a term that, perhaps, is an apt contrast to human penetration. For in this angelic scenario, we are assured that this is “purely, purely a spiritual thing. So as many positions / as they tried, as much licking, they made no babies, no diseases—just hymns.” The entering into one another, in the act of interpenetration, yields nothing tangible (no flesh), nothing microbial (no illness)—simply song. The act gives birth to something pure and ethereal, something unlike “a monster, with boobs and mouth and fingers.” The song of the poet, though, can create a marriage of these two seemingly disparate facets: “Oh angels, if I were Milton typing this, I would find you a way to have sex / that lets you be real, nipple-biting people—and also of one soul and holy and glorious”.
Such is the power of language, of song. At times, the text veers into a tone of sagacious aphorism (even quoting a range of authors, from Herman Melville to Alfred Jarry to André Gide), but maintains a deference to the power of the articulated word. A prime example is seen in “The Shooter”, where we learn (as a superstitious grandmother might say), “When asked, if you say, ‘I do not dance,’ the next day an infant is born without feet.” The communion of ethereal spirits, then, can result in beautiful song, but a person’s refusal to dance will force a newborn to lose limbs. Here, language is the primary method for a human to see that “my breath flowers before me.”
But, as seen in “The Job Interview,” language can’t be the only way to ward off eventual death and decomposition; indeed, sometimes, “clouds are nothing to rub against, are nothing but emptiness.” Equally important are simple joys, heartbreak, amazement—basic feelings that preclude the tangible. In this poem, the speaker irons white church vestments in “the stupid beautiful light through the stained glass,” its beauty still resonant despite the light’s prism through a physical lens. She nears climax (stating “the part of me that really responds to majesty are my hips”), but quickly apologizes (to whom?): “I’m so sorry, / so sorry to have a body. // But how else.” Clearly, here, body is integral (though not exclusive) to experiencing the spectrum of existence—and presupposed to be riddled with imperfections.
For even if the water supply has been tainted by “some kind of chemical … poison … or just the sun,” the species continues to propagate with their physical bodies, leading to “true optimism” for the world at large: “The triplets were gurgling … They were so hearty … They would, when they learned to walk, stand very straight … they would invent it all anew”. Forced into impermanent bodies that will eventually decay, these triplets have the chance to shape a world that they live in. Like these triplets, Dennigan invites us to work at “loving this world well,” for there can be beauty in even the most horrific scenarios, “In the dark of our apartment [where] we feel the planetness of our planet” or in unnerving interpersonal situations (or, “encounters,” as described in “The End is Near”). Through the shaping of language, we can manipulate “the loneliness of babies and the loneliness of / the last gas station attendant in bad weather” into something redemptive:
When you sleep in bed with a new baby in your arms—that kind of loneliness.Note the force of her tone, here: this action is unavoidable. You go on because you have to.
Everything is the baby, the bedroom is the end of the world,
but when the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you must
hold in your arms a strange thing.
The inhabitants of Dennigan’s collection are commonly stripped of choice. Take, for example, the residents of a hospice care center in “The Half-Life”, who are saved from nuclear holocaust by the structure’s inexpensive building materials: “the residents were really … roused … The news … the adrenaline … their lives … for months … might be extended.” These ellipses disrupt an otherwise straightforward narrative. Here the text conveys the machinations of the mind at work, and its breathless attempt to cling to bits of language amidst peril. The speaker eventually (and succinctly, sans ellipses) alludes to the patients’ mental self-actualization: “It was great to see their minds off their bodies.” In this quarantined existence, where we can surely assume the residents will pass away, we learn that the speaker cannot even destroy herself—she attempts to poison herself by ingesting mercury thermometers, but in the end, she concedes, “I continue to exist among them.” Perhaps the speaker desires death amidst such circumstances, but this desire works like all other forms of want: once explored, it’s no longer as desirable. Or, perhaps articulating such desire is enough, as echoed in “Some Antics”—a string of adjectives and verbs suffices:
I want to go where people say the sea is green.
Is the sea green there?
No. But their language has no word for blue.
Would you have loved me there?
Maybe. If they had a different verb. - Kevin Walter http://coldfrontmag.com/reviews/madame-x/
Many of the poems in Darcie Dennigan’s brash, flexible, strongly voiced second book, Madame X (Canarium Books, 2012), take the form of hearty chunks of ellipsis-ridden prose. Dennigan uses the prose poem to rethink the ellipsis and the ellipsis to rethink the prose poem. Her ellipses can carry any number of meanings, and it is fascinating to discern the ways in which those meanings come to light on these poems’ narrative surface. Besides using ellipses as a kind of de facto line break, Dennigan uses ellipses to denote a change in speaker or, in the opening of the poem “The Other Forest,” the same speaker addressing a different audience: ‘To insects—sensual lust … was how I began my talk.’ Dennigan’s ellipsis can mean that a word has been elided or interrupted, as in the wonderful poem “The Existentialist,” where the speaker wonders “Okay why does the Columbiney kid have his hand in his breast pock …?” Elsewhere ellipses stand in place of other punctuation marks like periods or commas. They can connote elements of tone like a voice drifting off, pausing, or stuttering, like the speaker’s halting “Why had I … I hadn’t meant … !” in “The Speechmaker.” In poems like “The Shooter” and “The Drought,” which have a strained or particularly complex relationship to reality, the clots of ellipses come to feel particularly restricting, tense, or anxiety inducing; they create a sense of space that after some repetition feels screechingly artificial, desperately limiting.
The italicized quotation that starts “The Other Forest” comes from The Brothers Karamazov, but the sense of its having come from elsewhere is what feels most relevant to Madame X. Most of the poems here include repurposed and re- or mis-contextualized material from other (usually literary) sources. Each of the prose poems begins with an unattributed literary quotation, set off only by an ellipsis. Dennigan could have made these opening quotations into epigraphs, or attributed them in footnotes or endnotes; as it is, their tones and intentions bleed into those of her speakers. “The Contaminants” begins, “Because Nazi venom had seeped into our very thoughts, every true thought was a victory … Speaking of seepage… Something had gotten into the water … some kind of chemical… poison… or just the sun…” Here the seriousness of the opening phrases (from Sartre) contrast with the speaker’s comic, physical “Speaking of seepage.” But Dennigan ratchets back up the stakes of the poem immediately by introducing the suggestion of “poison” in the water. And even if it is “just the sun,” the sinister suggestions of “Nazi venom” and poison weave against those lighter notes and images. In many of these poems, there is a sense of false joy—often connoted by an ellipses and an exclamation point—or, like here, a sense of tonal dissonance that feels deeply unsettling. Even, as in “Whale,” when it is clear the poem is a description of dreams and thus we are prepared for an unsteady relationship to reality, Dennigan finds new ways to shake us, gently and unexpectedly unpeeling reality.
Unlike other recent books in which poets explore the possibilities of a specific form—for example, Karen Volkman’s sound-driven sonnets in Nomina, Sabrina Orah Mark’s dark prose poems in The Babies and Tsim Tsum, or Dennigan’s press-mate Anthony Madrid’s ghazals in I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say—Dennigan in Madame X takes some notable departures from her chosen form. That decision allows Dennigan to effect a wider variety of tones, sounds, and types of speaker—many of these poems are several pages long. In the poem “Out of the Ether,” Dennigan plays with two voices, one cynical, resisting transport, the other high lyric. The masterful “Some Antics” builds on its aphoristic stanzas, mounting toward a gorgeously rich conclusion that feels both spare and lush, hopeful and bereft. The poem also includes a moment that helped me read the books’ many ellipses:
I prefer and so on to etcetera.Perhaps Dennigan’s ellipsis can be read as an “and so on”: a wrapping-up that is also an upcoming, and end becoming a beginning.
The latter goes by too quickly to convey sub specie aeternitatis with accuracy.
And fails to suggest hope of an end. If you trip over and so on you’ll get soon.
Another theme of this wonderful book is naming and re-naming. In its first poem, “The Youngest Living Thing in L.A.” the speaker’s baby is christened again and again; a fountain becomes a mountain, then turns back into a mountain. With her shifting (and shifty) tones and settings, Dennigan undermines her poems’ internal sense of reality. The giant X that demarcates each section break reads to me like an error messages or like when the TV screen suddenly fills with static—another new shock to the system.
In “The Job Interview,” Dennigan writes in the bold tradition of great American dramatic monologuists like Richard Howard, Frank Bidart, and Robert Frost. Like those poets, Dennigan has an excellent ear for the cadences and subtexts of contemporary speech, which she conveys through the earnest tale of a flawed sacristy worker. Confessing to having used incense as deodorant, she says, “The smell of the incense made me feel as if I were leading a solemn procession. It also made me feel sort of sexy?” In the midst of these moments of real humor, Dennigan achieves beauty:
I’m so sorry,One of the great strengths of this fresh, inventive book is its ranging creativity, the philosophy, history, and geography across which Dennigan creates believable or convincingly unbelievable selves, and, the ways in which—as, with, and through those selves—she speaks. - Lucy Biederman
so sorry to have a body.
But how else.
I don’t have heaven.
I don’t have clouds even.
We lie in every word.Darcie Dennigan announces in Madame X, her second collection of poetry, that we have been “wis-hearing” syllables “since the Tower of Babel’s ceiling fan stirred M and W into topsiturvitude.” In “Some Antics” we find the speaker “at Macy’s searching for an honest clause.” We are told: “When the honest word eludes, try to substitute.” Finally, at the end of the book, Dennigan acknowledges her readers: “If anything emerges from this book’s mistakes, it is thanks to [their] generous readings.”
Did I say word? Oh dear. I meant mode.
We lie in every mode.
Darcie Dennigan, “The Ninth Annual Meeting of the Fraternal Disorder of Historic Linguists or The Error of My Maze”
Mistakes run rampant through Madame X. As large-scale disasters they are droughts and hurricanes, nuclear holocaust and water contamination. But mistakes also arise as verbal collisions, as a misunderstanding or misspeaking. Dennigan favors dramatic monologues in a prose style that is rich with ellipses to signal interruptions, erasures, verbal tics or a trailing off. The ellipses allow the prose poems to escape their box bodies (yes, these are prose poems with line breaks) by separating words with lapses or pauses, often highlighting language’s slipperiness. In “The Atoll” Dennigan describes the native Atlanteans, driven out of their island homes by the negative effects of fisson testing: “We escorted them … to a very nice … resort-like … laboratory”…“They were nodding and bowing … maybe politeness … maybe vomiting.”
These poems inhabit a site that is almost recognizable. An abandoned Los Angeles. A dreamscape with vivid flourishes. A sense of normalcy, for instance, in the surreal preparation of a fancy dinner – thirty duck hearts – against the backdrop of a simultaneous hurricane, blizzard, and 4th of July. The recipe keeps changing, depending upon who hears about it, always with some new ingredient to add, some preparation method to tweak. “That’s not the way it goes … anymore,” the chorus of dinner guests reprimands. “Each heart should be served raw … and drowning … in a sacred diamond-flavored fountain” is an impossibility in a poem entitled “The Drought”, where the riverbed is dry.
Symbolism, for these characters, is often undermined. The hostess in “The Drought,” frustrated by her guests’ servitude to ritual, finally blurts out: “But these guests! … Honestly … They were just … They were as hungry as I was.” Divorced from symbol, objects become purely functional again. Baptismal water and communion wafers are consumed for sustenance. St. Augustine’s book flips open to a revelatory passage, not through mysticism, but since “the freaking book probably always falls open to that page because … who’s always reading it … creasing it … who owns that book in the first place.” As Dennigan puts it bluntly, “Even if I believed the Word became flesh, well –/ I’d probably just want to have sex with it.” Dennigan’s poems often return to the body, the desires and perceived failings her speakers constantly try to transcend. “This is me typing – Darcie. I am a human. / At least, when I am not a monster, with boobs, and mouth and fingers.”
“Some say the world will end in fire, / Some say in ice” famously wrote Robert Frost. “I whispered precipice” Dennigan answers, “[…] because precipice contains ice (practically twice).” If the end is near, as Dennigan proposes, at least the language is hearty. The crux of the book seems to hinge on our ability to dismantle words to make meaning, to misspeak to create new understandings. True loneliness, Dennigan says, is a place distanced from the disaster zone or, as above, removed from verbal topsiturtivitude. “When the baby is calm you cannot know its mind, and you must / hold in your arms a strange thing.” -
Darcie Dennigan, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, Fordham University Press, 2008.
read it at Google Books
Corinna, A-Maying the Apocalypse simultaneously celebrates and laments that “we are but decaying.” Betraying a love of old poems and symbols and new words and forms, these are poems where “the moon’s spritzing its perfumes and the phlegm is thick and fast” over cities and Starbucks and suburbs. The poet is in love with the rhythm of the man-made world, and “the rhythm is so strong sometimes / it blows up the room.”
“Dennigan’s poems are deliciously specific in their strangeness: her Saint Mary `cries Type O blood from her left eye.’ This is an exuberantly unpredictable debut.” — Matthea Harvey
“Dennigan’s poems are reckless, self-generating fantasies which retain the high stakes of the experiential world. They hurl the inventivenss of a contemporary imagination into dialogue with the smashers, motherhood, and American apple pie. She has found a poetic dimension which is–the opposite of Jesus–OF the world but not IN it. I approve of this work. She gets the big go-ahead to lead her poetic generation back into the world, to charge and change it with satire, vision and hope.” — Tony Hoagland
Spitting associative sparks off both real and imagined landscapes, the poems in Corinna invite readers to excavate, associate, and riff off what's given." OR "Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse is powered by conundrum, surprise, imagination, recklessness, wonderment, earnestness, and above all giant playfulness and smarts. ―Cold Front Mag
. . . Dennigan's verse in smart but not unkind, sensual without being icky. ―Indiana Review
“With a love for the dance of syntax and a delight in the polyphony of dictions both high
and low, Dennigan springs onto the contemporary poetry stage with a fresh original style. Her poetry is an exuberant celebration of language and insight.” ―Mark Jarman
Any object built with the tool of imagination functions best when it best disguises its own making; a whale and a cathedral are both structurally impressive, but the former lives and moves while the latter just sits there. Of course, the greater glory of the whale also derives from the fact that it is the product of contingency, not design. How, then, to contrive the illusion of poetry that appears as evolved occurrence as much as crafted artifact? Darcie Dennigan’s first collection suggests the answer may be found in a fluid yet faithful devotion to the possibilities engendered by error. In the long poem “The Feeling of the World As a Bounded Whale Is the Mystical” (the title is itself a mishearing of Wittgenstein’s famous dicta), the narrator and a child in her care talk past and through each other regarding an illustration the child has made that depicts her imperfect understanding of Chernobyl: “What I am jealous of in the child, what I really detest in her / is how she nods // with kindergarten grace and finality. Primly, into her pinafore, / she tucks what I’ve told of the story.” Moments later, the narrator wonders “if the dark green slashes are meant to be / radiance, not plain grass.” Dennigan suggests that misapprehension need not be only the inevitable consequence of encounters between persons, but also between persons and words, an exchange that makes the world it marks: “The mothers in the tale were always supermarket braggarts - / My boy was the first to mechanize his fist. / My boy rides a windmill when he needs impetus. / blah blah blah, he surfs on oil slicks.” In this, it matters less that these phrases report what was said than that they approximate what was heard. Of that consistent nonsense, Dennigan makes delightful poetry, a pure aural pleasure more willowy than willed, and as various as language lived. - Raymond McDaniel http://bostonreview.net/mcdaniel-darcie-dennigan
with a title like Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, a reader does not know how to approach Darcie Dennigan’s Poets Out Loud award-winning book. Thankfully, the book is as surprising and quietly disastrous as a reader might expect, which is a good thing.
Of course, I do not mean the book is a disaster, but rather each poem toys with disaster as Dennigan allows herself to flirt with the apocalypse. Each poem slowly disassembles only to reassemble itself from line to line. Yet, there is no explosion. There is no final pulling of the last thread on which the poem rests. The apocalypse, instead, rests on the brink, and Dennigan pulls it closer and pushes it away with the care that one may well exhibit while moving nearer the apocalypse.
This act leaves readers with a constant knot in their throats. Do we swallow it back in order to hold our breaths and wait for the imminent end, or do we let air escape in a sigh of relief because the apocalypse has been ever-so-gently pushed away once again? Dennigan teeters on this line effectively, and her language is the comfort that readers cling to in such an uncertain space.
She writes in “I Sense a Second Heart”:
We used gum to get out gum,
grease to remove grease.
grease to remove grease.
With me this logic stuck-
when quiet got too much I put in earplugs
or hit the one I meant to clinch.
or hit the one I meant to clinch.
I think my mother survived eternity by drowning in its length.While her language is precise and expressive, it contains a certain amount of familiarity. The language is beautiful, yet not so painstakingly verbose that the reader cannot enter into conversation with the poem. Despite the overpowering images and wavering tone, Dennigan uses language to welcome the reader to join her as she transcends the common experience to find both the sacred and destructive.
Dennigan’s apocalypse is not one of blacked-out suns or of lands crumbling into the sea. Her apocalypse is an intensely personal one, consisting of watching college girls through bar windows and mingling with abandoned children. The apocalypse does not hang in the depths of ancient text or in images of Armageddon. Rather, it lies waiting in the everyday activities of life. It is this assertion, above all, that defines the book. The apocalypse is a disclosure, a personal revelation, not the worldwide spectacle we expect or perhaps even wish for. Dennigan’s apocalypse creeps its way into lives quietly and daily, and Dennigan uses common experience as a template to discuss the dangerous and the sublime as it exists within her world.
Darcie Dennigan’s Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse is an approachable yet entrenching book. The reader, comforted by language, is unafraid to enter the book, and once inside of the poems becomes discomforted by the idea of both leaving and staying within its pages. Dennigan holds her readers the same way that she holds the apocalypse; with desire and restraint. - Andi McKay Boyd http://frontporchjournal.com/corinna-a-maying-the-apocalypse/
It’s a beautiful Spring day here in Ohio. Things are turning green and bursting. And finally, once again, the sun is upon us after months of “winter events” and gray skies/cold rain. I’m typing in the dining room, and through the windows to my left I can see Melanie outside planting pansies, hyacinth, and mums. Meanwhile, our nearly two year old daughter is “helping” her mother—picking up dirt, pointing at birds (singing “bird bird bird”) and pulling the petals off the flowers where she can. Earlier, as I was trying to bring her inside to eat lunch she wouldn’t let go of the handful of purple petals she had clinched in her hand, no sir. A little fit ensued. The terrible twos. Definitely not a big deal, but her fist would NOT open. Thus, the purple petals now strewn about my living room and kitchen floors.
2.Of course, this is not a disquisition on parenting, nor is it a description of the Midwest in Spring. This is—will be—as the title promises—a “review” of Darcie Dennigan’s debut book of poems, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse, which won the 2006-2007 Fordham University Press Poets Out Loud Prize—and which, by the by, I have been waiting to read for quite some time.
I plan to argue, here, (among other, unplanned things—we shall see!) that more than with a lot of other books, the title of Dennigan’s Corinna sets the stage—provides an associative backdrop and atmosphere—that when unraveled can provide a useful way of thinking about the book both as a whole and in terms of its individual poems.
Given this, I should perhaps connect the tissue of my initial domestic anecdote, as tenuous as it may be, to the book at hand. At the heart of Dennigan’s book is “A-maying” (both in its title and its content), which my daughter without any prompting is doing right now—that is, celebrating the end of winter via the gathering (and beheading!) of Spring flowers. Of course, it’s important to remember that at the heart of a-maying is May Day—and its various festivities: gathering spring flowers (yet again), the crowning of the May Queen, dancing round the maypole, and in more recent years parades and celebrations in support of labor and workers’ rights, a whole host of left-wing (“bird, bird, bird”) political demonstrations. In other words, to go a-maying is to demonstratively spring into Spring.
However, I can’t also help but be reminded associatively that “May Day” is “mayday,” the international radiotelephone distress signal used by ships and aircraft—as well as by fire and police departments (in “mayday situations”) to declare the commencement of search and rescue operations. Associatively speaking, then, a-maying has its darkside. In fact, “mayday” is a shortening of the French venez m’aider, which means “come help me”. And as long as we’re going out on associative limbs, looking at the French m’aider makes me think of the English “maiden” of which Dennigan’s Corrina is one. Her name is in fact a version of the Greek “Korinna” which is derived from kore meaning “maiden,” and furthermore is an epithet of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter (the Greek goddess of agriculture) and Zeus (head honcho of the gods).
The story, which I’m sure most everybody knows, goes that Persephone, herself out a-maying with her attendant maidens, was abducted by Hades, the god of the underworld. He had apparently taken a liking to her and wanted her to be his queen, so he opened up the earth and essentially swallowed her. A May Day mayday indeed. However, this didn’t sit well with Demeter, who was so forlorn over her daughter’s disappearance that she failed to tend the crops, and thus the first winter came to the earth. By all accounts it was a TERRIBLE one. So bad in fact that Zeus eventually intervened, ordering Persephone to spend half the year in the underworld and half up top with her mother. Thus, explaining the changing of the seasons. And now for a brief hiatus.
3.I can imagine already people saying: well, if you have to do all of this associative research-y type work just to get the backdrop and atmosphere upon which Dennigan’s world turns, the poems must not stand so well on their own. On the contrary, it’s that they stand so well on their own—they’re rock solid! in fact—that allows them to fly. Spitting associative sparks off both real and imagined landscapes, the poems in Corinna invite readers to excavate, associate, and riff off of what’s given. As Dennigan writes near the end of “The Virgins,” which moves deftly in its first 15 lines from a loveseat on a New England porch to a “porcelain Mary three towns over” that “cries type O blood from her eyes” then onto the myth of Clytie and Apollo and finally to an avalanche scene on Mount Blanc in the French Alps:
…See howIn other words, for me, these poems demonstrate both an incredible groundedness (in terms of form AND content), “nobody has moved” and an associative leaping, inter/woven-ness, “avalanches & bleeding out,” which is immeasurably interesting not only for what the poems say, but for what they point to as well. In a way, these poems work in the tradition of Keats’ Odes, which remain stable (because they’re actually about things) while sliding from one idea to another exploratively. Dennigan’s poems thus demonstrate a 21st Century imaginative engagement with actual life, which is not only fantastic, but compelling. As Dennigan writes near the end of the book’s title poem:
I have gone from home to mythology
to the Alps & nobody has moved.
Love, when I say I want to be close
to you I should say more
about avalanches & bleeding out,
how we will move through eons
& hemispheres in a white clapboard house.
All the front door keys to all the places—which makes me want to read and re-read and also do my homework. But back to the book’s title…
I have ever lived drip from the dogwood tree
& chime in the wind
4.Many people will surely note that the title of Dennigan’s book directly references, and plays on, the title of 17th century poet Robert Herrick’s “Corrina is Going A-Maying,” a poem that argues against keeping one’s maiden self cloistered away in the protective custody of decorum when one can be out frolicking among the daffodils, etc.
And while Herrick’s poem may not go as far in suggesting/arguing for physical good times (or more darkly, terrible ones) as, say, Andrew Marvel does with his coy mistress, there’s certainly enough ambiguity in Herrick’s poem to suggest that the speaker may have ulterior motives for getting Corinna and her posse out into the wildflowers.
This is a theme that Dennigan herself picks up in several of the poems in her book, including the aforementioned “The Virgins” and the title poem. However these themes are even more acutely tackled in “Orienteering in the Land of New Pirates,” where she writes, “…isn’t adventure always better than stagnant water?/ —I say this standing waist deep in a swamp.” Then later, “I wouldn’t want my boy to think the world is kind./ Wouldn’t want him to think his games have no dark side.” What’s great here and different from her 17th Century models is the way she takes both sides of the argument, as both the persuader and the persuaded, for better or for worse. Another example of this occurs in “Eleven Thousand and One,” where the speaker, after weaving together the story of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs with a contemporary Boston bar scene of five young women, who she’s rather voyeuristically watching through the bar window, she apologizes to “mom, god, you there” for allowing herself to be lured into connecting the dots and then, more importantly, connecting them to herself. Ultimately, the poem builds to its one unimagined momentous climax. Choosing expression over decorum, the speaker, who’s been leaning against a dying sapling for much of the poem, finally stops imagining the lives and purported lives of others and bursts out with, “I need to make love to something.”
5.Finally, besides “Corinna” and her “a-maying,” there’s also the apocalypse to contend with—a sense of universal or widespread destruction. In this As Dennigan writes in her poem “Interior Ghazal of a Lousy Girl,” (a poem which indeed does contain a ghazal in its interior:
Kingdom come.), “I am the excess of exuberance,/ one crummy girl swallowing ruin.” That is, the book contends with the apocalypse by eating it (the way Hades made the earth to swallow Persephone) again and again. How does one eat the apocalypse? Very carefully, but also as the interior Ghazal above demonstrates by not giving up in the face of it and by going to the party no matter come what a-maying (“Kingdom come. Bring rum.”). In other words, Corinna A-Maying the Apocalypse is powered by conundrum, surprise, imagination, recklessness, wonderment, earnestness, and above all giant playfulness and smarts. Even as it plumbs the depths, it refuses to take itself too seriously—from the palindromic “Sit on a Potato Pan Otis” to “The New Constellation” (which begins, “I loved the Starbucks”) to the amazing prose poem “The New Mothers” (which tells the story of orphan hospital nurses who invent new mothers for their patients out of cheap wind-up clocks, even as the poem deconstructs its own un“metered” language into a tick-tocking new mother tongue). Just as Corinna A-Maying plays against the Apocalypse that follows it in the book’s title, Dennigan is also careful in the poems themselves to play playfulness (both in form and content) against the book’s more devastating/earnest moments. No place is this more apparent than in the poem “Sentimental Atom Smasher”, which uses the opening of the greatest bar joke ever told as a way to talk about longing, stasis, and feeling:
Bring rum. Come
Sling, strum, come.
Stinging crumb, come.
Dennigan mum. Come,
my sobbing plum, come.
So this guy walks into a bar and asks for a beer. Sorry,It’s funny ha-ha in spots, and also funny strange/funny not. It’s a joke alright—the joke’s a “joke,” because it’s actually poem—a sort of ode to Jokes and their shadows, and the poem itself’s a joke, because, well, “a guy walks into a bar,” and as a result we are immediately sucked into its wonderful machine:
the bartender says, I only sell atom smashers
And the guy says well isn’t that America for you–
every happy-hour Nelson’s a homemade physicist and no thank you,
just an ice cold one, but it’s too late–suddenly, he’s on his butt
in a ballfield where handsome men are chasing a ball over grass
sad grass, yellow like the hair of his once-young mother!
and again he says, no thank you–I’ve seen this movie before
And the bartender says it’s a joke and you’re inside its machine…
A guy walks into a bar,Who hasn’t been cured of what ills them by getting hit in the head in a joke inside a joke inside a poem? Yes, of course, but what’s the punchline/final line, you ask? Is it an atom smasher that blasts away sentiment or a smasher of sentimental atoms? Well, as it turns out, neither is correct—the punchline is one that no doubt would make Gertrude Stein, Kenneth Koch, and even Robert Herrick proud: “the moonlight and the moonlight is curdling into freon…”
–actually just the beer-drinking bleachers of a ballfield–and says
is this some kind of joke?
Well, says the bartender who has observed the little lamb
and the tyger burning bright and tickled their particulates,
because your life has lately been stagnant, we have yoked you
to a joke and we await the gasp that will gas up the cosmos…
Just then there’s a hit at the plate–and it’s going,
it’s going–gone to smash the guy in the skull
And since baseballs are made of nostalgia atoms, the guy,
with concussion, says I want to buy a coke for a nickel
I want to install applie pie perfumemakers in the crotch of every
Bartender, bring me dried nosegays! Start the stalwart pageants!
6.Then again, “If we only stay careful and awake—if we are good people—/ Ha. Then nothing.” Then “The Feeling of the World As a Bounded Whale Is the Mystical.” Then “I killed my heart to feel it.” “…a geologic instant…” Then “The Chrysler Driver blows his horn,” and Darcie Dennigan has this amazing new that you should read right now. Here in Ohio, the sun is going down. It’s a different day. Tomorrow, “There will be a loud report.” - Matt Hart http://coldfrontmag.com/corinna-a-maying-the-apocalypse/
It was a geologic instant.
Fine-bone plates moved under the Pawtuxet
& up sprang West Warwick. In an instant
the houses were up & the shutters open.
Then the paint was peeling all over town.
Then the instant passed with a shudder
& all the houses fell down.
The lilacs die. The lilies of the valley. April & May blow up & away.
"We are ready to live as before,"
says the last bald priest to the last white-May-dress girl,
who touches her chalked hopscotch sidewalk
& beneath her palm detects an earthquake
& in a gutter puddle sees her skull
& on her tongue catches a white blossom,
the last one. With her chalk she bawls
"The spring days are going to the graveyard."
The pet goat eats poison oak. The puppy bites the bitty lamb. All the kitty's whiskers fall away.
The little Lamb girl straddles a Chrysler Plymouth,
queen of the car parade, with a kitty
in her arm crook & a hand to the crowd.
She calls out, "I can see the end from here"
& tosses all West Warwick some Tootsie Rolls.
The Chrysler driver blows his horn.
Where have all the May-dress girls gone?
—To the classroom, for learning Latin & blushing
over Queen Dido's open, bebassing mouth.
The dust turns to tar. The rain to chalk. Undertakers cart snow angels away.
My hearse slides by a girl astride a puddle
wearing her mom's wedding gown. A downpour
smacks Arctic, Natick, the Greenwich Inn.
All the front door keys to all the places
I have ever lived drip from the dogwood tree
& chime in the wind. The girl in the gown
sinks. The puddle turns to a pond. West Warwick,
my West Warwick, drowns. Drowns world,
my clapboard castle & the moonface I was living in.